The Canon G III
Often referred to as the 'Poor Man's Leica',
this film camera has reached a cult status among those in search of classic
simplicity with full manual control ... Yeah, you can drive it in
automatic, too ...
As the film revival movement takes a firmer hold in the digital age, many
are turning to instruments from the Golden Age of film cameras: The 1960s
and 70s. Indeed, this era produced the absolute apex of mechanical design
from a variety of camera makers some, alas, no longer in existence
such as Minolta, among others. I continue to think of all the fine
cameras at a variety of price-points that we simply took for
granted as child photographers. All-metal, tank-like construction was the
norm for countless cameras that started at only $100 (okay, often translating
to something closer to the $500 mark in todays money).
It was an era when camera makers really tried to produce fine products
with a genuine enthusiasm for engineering some more successfully than
others before camera manufacturers became bottom-dollar conglomerates,
focused on quarterly earnings. A time, indeed, when a singular camera design
would have a retail shelf life of 10 years or more rather than
being the fleeting camera of just one summer season. And a cameras
actual usefulness extended way beyond that decade-long display life. The
very fact that these classic cameras are being revisited some 25 ~ 50 years
after their introduction is a testament to that. And increasingly, more of
the newer generation of photographers are coming to know that many of the
optics associated with these cameras are the equal of the most modern, computer
design-assisted lens formulations of today zooms, aside. It was a
time when single, fixed focal length lenses ruled.
And in this more current Back to Basics phenomenon, there are
those who choose cameras that represent the merger of minimum fuss simplicity
with full manual control capabilities, all with minimal physical
intrusion. To several people, this is best represented by a quality rangefinder
camera. And of this genre, Leica and Contax would surely come to mind for
many. But for many more, the required cash seldom comes to the wallet
particularly for young photographers who have already spent over $1000 for
a MacBook and iPod. Then there was the expenditure of their SLR digital camera,
prior to that. Yet others, more flush, are still rightly reserved in spending
so much on an experimental whim that just may not be for them, further not
considering resale potential.
Whats In a Name and Sealing The Deal
It is for any or all of the above groups that I investigated a camera that
has been often referred to as The Poor Mans Leica. More
formerly, the camera is designated as the Canon Canonet QL17
But, as luck would have it,
youre not paying for the extensive name. At todays prices, you
can get a really nice one for $100 ~ $150, often less (Update: Really clean
ones are now often in the $150 ~ $200 range, since this article first ran.
Look around and be patient). The minty clean example of this camera, shown
here, cost me $60
no servicing required, outside of replacing the
sticky light seals on the rear door that still hadnt actually entirely
deteriorated or disintegrated and remained light-tight, in
fact. It costs about $10 ~ $15 to replace the seals yourself or less,
if youre familiar with the inventory at your local crafts store. The
actual replacement is also akin to a small crafts project that doesnt
require a master craftsman, if some degree of care is exercised. The process
is known as refoaming and you can virtually count on doing this
(for any camera more than 20 years old) unless the sample has already been
refoamed. They, indeed, sell peel and stick kits for the camera on eBay and
the biggest part of the job is clearing out the old foam strip material with
some lighter fluid and a wooden tool of some sort, like a chop stick and
Dont let such handiwork discourage you from such purchases. If youre
timid about such things, a camera tech can do it for you at a fairly reasonable
cost or should.
The Canon GIII, when newly introduced in 1972, was about $100 and, as I
understand it, reached something near the $200 mark by its outro in 1982
... after Canon had sold 1.2 million of them. So, yes
They can currently
cost as much used as they were when first introduced, as new. But no matter.
If made today, theyd be a quality $500 camera. And many aspects of
the camera does, indeed, exude quality particularly for those who
were born and raised in the age of plastic shooters, inclusive of the expensive
ones. To get this impression from a modern camera, you do have to go for
a current Leica or recent Contax. In that case, think $2000 or more.
From second test roll ... Readily available Fugi
200 print film, processed and scanned at a local drug store for fast,
general test convenience.
The Battery: Mercury Rising
One small consideration of this classic Canon is that the original and intended,
1.35 volt battery is no longer available in the States since being outlawed,
due to its mercury content a situation regarding most older cameras
from this era. The best currently available replacement, in my view, is the
675 hearing aid battery (often sold in 10 packs), nominally rated
at 1.4 volts, but Ive measured them fresh out of the package
at something closer to 1.37 volts (under no load). Thats just
fine and requires no exposure compensation. While smaller in physical diameter
than the original button cell, an inexpensive rubber O ring wrapped
snugly around the battery will take up the extra space in the cameras
battery chamber. I dont recommend filling up the extra space with aluminum
foil, as many have. Its just too easy for the foil to become displaced,
shorting the positive contact to ground. You really dont want that.
Neither does the battery
or the camera.
The 675s are zinc air batteries and their life cycle begins as
soon as you pull away the paper sealing tab from the battery casing
even under no load. But at their modest cost (about $1, per individual unit),
you can afford to change them out every 1 ~ 2 months. I just chuck the old
ones into my large vat of molten mercury before I pour it down a storm drain
near the playground.
Some use the larger 625A (alkaline) battery in the Canon for an original
fit. But at its higher 1.55 volt output, its use technically requires some
exposure compensation with this camera, either with the film speed setting
or by recalibrating the meter internally, requiring a camera technician
for most people. Moreover, the 625A doesnt remain linear in output
over its lifespan. The 675 hearing aid battery I often use pretty much does,
while the larger 625A tapers downward over its life. Not especially good,
as it relates to camera meters requiring a constant voltage. Just swap them
out, say, every 3 months to be sure. But with this minor consideration out
of the way
The Canon GIII Overview:
As previously mentioned, the general build quality of this camera is high
particularly by todays standards. Even the chrome is superior
to many other rangefinders of its time. For example, while there are
those who love their older Yashica Electro 35s, the grain of
the chrome was coarser, and was just too silvery reflective, in my view.
This Canon has a more velvet-like chrome finish, with less pebble.
Its very nicely done and would be typical of cameras more expensive.
When the camera is well and swell, the focusing is smooth with just the right
amount of dampened resistance (one of my sub-standard samples has a focusing
movement thats too free through most of its range. Youd
prefer not to have that). The Canons wind lever is also smooth and
confident. The one operational feel aspect that falls short relative to the
cameras general quality would concern the shutter release. In its state of
repose, the shutter button has some wobble and play, when scrutinized. This
would be very un-Leica like, yes. But in actual use, you dont even
realize it as you concentrate on composing and shooting your frame. It certainly
isnt a deal breaker, by any means.
But pause for a moment to take your Canon GIII in
It is a strikingly
handsome camera. Again, looking more the business than several
others of the era, from Yashica to Olympus. It looks the money
If I could impose my own industrial design sensibilities to it, I
would have rolled the corners a bit more, rounding the contours a bit. But
a degree of boxiness was typical in the 1970s, for most everything, cameras
aside. Beyond this, I would have made the shutter speed ring charcoal grey
in tone, rather than solid black while still retaining high visibility
of the numeric legends a very subtle consideration. I also probably
would have continued the satin silver finish of the lens barrel right out
to the front element, rather than the reflective chrome bling ring
towards the front, where filters and shades screw in. Finally, the GIII badge
on the cameras front is visually superfluous and simply prying it off
will leave a rectangular cutout in the leatherette all because Canon
did it right, damn it. But this is all nit-picking. Its a very
nice looking camera, as is ...
Strikingly Good Looks
All controls are nicely placed and readily accessible.
There'll be more on my attached lens shade, below.
For those in search of a Poor Mans Leica, the Canon GIII
can qualify in many respects more reminiscent of the Leica CL (made
by Minolta, actually), perhaps, than any of the Leica M series.
The Canons 40mm, f/1.7 lens (6 elements, 4 groups) naturally draws
a comparison to the same focal length of the Leica CLs standard lens.
Of note, however, is the fact that the CL has the potential of using
interchangeable lenses, while the Canon has its one fixed lens, permanently
mounted in place. But point of fact, many Leica CL owners simply stuck with
the supplied 40mm lens, in any event, relative to all of the CLs sold. In
truth, when I have to lug two additional lenses around, the grab and
go charm of the small and unobtrusive rangefinder camera is diminished.
While the promise of additional lenses is nice, the rangefinder format
invites simplicity. And, indeed, many masters of this format built their
entire career and reputation around a single lens.
With this Canon, you simply train your eye to see in 40 millimeters.
Odd though it may seem, it can be more liberating than having an array of
individual lenses that you (seemingly have to) choose from, as yet another
set of decisions to impede the process. In fact, Internet Photo Guru, Ken
Rockwell (www.kenrockwell.com), floated around France with only a single,
fixed-lens rangefinder (a medium format type) even with a large array
of equipment available to him back home. In this journey, he only longed
for another lens once (probably an ultra-wide, knowing him).
But as a more technical comparison to Leica, there are those who will naturally
ponder the potential image quality of the Canon lens, relative to that supplied
with the Leica CL. So, heres the deal, in a nutshell
who view your photographs if, indeed, you wish other people to see
them wont be able to tell you which camera shot what image.
Its that simple, particularly at common, mid-range apertures. While
I saw a notation at Camerapedia that proclaimed the Canon lens was at its
sharpest wide open at full aperture, this is flatly false, and represents
one area where the Leica lens will overtake it, technically
if still without notice for 98% of the population. Remember, the huddled
masses arent examining the bokeh of out-of-focus highlights.
You, perhaps, are. And if you obsess on such things, exclusively,
youre missing the point of photography as an art medium. Either camera
can produce images that can grab a viewer (or not), without apology, and
without anything that could be regarded as substandard.
Ill further say this
If you cant get a good, full-frame
12 x 16 inch print out of the Canon, youre either doing something wrong,
the negative or transparency wasnt scanned properly, or your camera
once took a hit that knocked it out of whack. So, as it relates to most practical
considerations, the comparison to Leica is entirely valid as well
as incidental. Just shoot with it and enjoy the bright, peep-hole vision
of a rangefinder camera that often prompts you to simply see things differently,
relative to other cameras youve been accustomed to, such as SLRs. It
can conjure another sense of vision for you.
In any event, the cameras relative sharpness is far more up to you,
as the photographer. Focus accurately and squeeze the shutter
dont punch it. As I looked at a variety of Canonet
shots photographed by other people, I saw some images that were truly excellent,
while others looked like they were taken with plastic toy cameras. In the
latter cases, I was almost always able to trace it back to pilot
error. Ive seen similar disparities among Leica images, as well.
In truth, once you reach a certain level in quality, differences among lenses
are often small, under most practical conditions at common enlargement sizes
and viewing distances, relative to print dimensions.
This aside, the Canon GIII offers some distinct advantages over the Leica.
One such example would be found in its internal leaf shutter that allows
you to sync a flash unit at all shutter speeds particularly useful
for outdoor, fill lighting. The camera also boasts a shutter priority
Automatic mode (with exposure lock), while still offering full
manual control like the Leica, yes but unique among relatively
inexpensive rangefinders of the day. And the Canons QL (Quick Load)
film-loading is a joy, taking only seconds before youre ready to shoot
the first frame. Moreover, if the camera craps out on you or suffers an
insufferable accident, you just buy another one for around $100. You could
pay as much as $800 for a used, replacement Leica CL, as of this day. And
in either event, most snatch and grabbers dismiss these rangefinders
as being cheap, point and shoot cameras at a glance, moving on to
the bigger game, as they perceive it. Theyre seldom the wiser.
From first test roll ...
Larger rendering reveals every pebble of the running
track's 'grain' ...
Photographed near my home at the famed Milton Academy.
By the way, for you Leica owners who are freaking out and already composing
your usual round of irate mail in your head, I do like the
CL very much in either the Leica or Minolta-Leitz CLE
inception. This is simply an overview of a camera that came so remarkably
close in so many respects, independent of its fixed-lens form factor. Give
Canon some well-deserved credit for producing such a nicely executed and
finished camera for those poor, unfortunate slobs who just didnt have
the cash for your Leica, the impoverished dears
But for the commoners, Canon provided them with auto-exposure, with button-press
exposure lock; full manual control of both apertures and shutter speeds;
a bright and contrasty, coupled viewfinder with parallax correction, and
even a flash unit that could couple to the focusing distance automatically
all wrapped in a quality piece of mechanical engineering, presented
in a metal casing that was very nicely finished with an industrial design
acumen that truly represents one of the most handsome cameras produced
particularly when measured against most comparable rangefinders of the day.
Some Things To Know
The Canon lens focuses down to 2.5 feet, with excellent accuracy, while many
of its competitors stopped at the 3 foot mark. That extra six inches can
be very nice to have.
Like many cameras of its genre and era, the CDS meter window is mounted in
the front of the lens, just above the front element. It was touted that mounting
a filter didnt require any exposure compensation as a result. Not entirely
true, actually. The CDS cell is mounted so close to the filter thread that
the very ring structure of the filter, itself, can eclipse the metering cell
enough to result in a one-stop difference, independent of the filter type
or its innate transmission properties even if its a clear UV
filter. One may not thinks so, reasoning that the light first passes through
a large pinhole perforation before it hits the cell, anyway and, as such,
is eclipsed in any event. Dont count on it. You can measure the difference
when a particular filter ring is attached yourself, looking at the meter
needle in the viewfinder. Yes, some filter rings are thicker and deeper than
others, so its worth the moment to check it out. Theres more
on this as I further discuss my somewhat unique lens hood, below that
which has spawned so much interest among my readers. But know that for those
who primarily shoot negative-based print film, this one stop difference will
be of little consequence. Its just the German in me that seemingly
demands academic precision to be applied.
Turning the meter off virtually
While Canon recommends that
you place a cap on the lens when not in use to conserve the battery associated
with the meter (acting as something loosely akin to an off switch),
simply rotating the aperture ring away from the A (automatic)
marking to any manual f-stop will also extend the battery life by the same
amount. Oh, and no battery power (or battery in residence, at all) is required
to shoot the camera manually, throughout its entire range. Youre on
your own with exposure, whether by experience, a separate meter, Sunny F16
Rule, or an old Kodak data book (not to be confused with the Kodak DATE book,
featuring lurid photographs of old girlfriends in provocative poses). In
any event, you can keep shooting while others plug in their chargers and
Remember when we could start our manual shift automobiles
with a dead battery by giving it a racing push or rolling it down a hill,
and popping the gear? Its kind of like that. Youve returned to
a time when life was easier. Such is the charm. For gone are the days when
you could limp a car home as long as you had some duct tape and guy wire
under the passenger seat. With Digi-Cars and Digi-Cams
pretty much fucked.
Another thing youll come to know particularly for those of us
more accustomed to larger cameras is that youll inadvertently
put smudged fingerprints all over the viewfinders front glass as you
cradle it. At least, at first. After a couple of days, you become more accustomed
to the cameras relatively diminutive size and keep your fingers poised
in different locations, clear of the viewfinder glass. But initially, it
seemed like I was cleaning the viewfinder every 30 minutes.
The Hood: What Ill Give You, Since You Asked
Since first posting my images of the Canon GIII elsewhere on the Internet,
Ive been most often asked, Where did you get the lens hood?!
Indeed, appropriate 48mm hoods for the camera are somewhat uncommon.
So, heres a copy of what became my mass email response
Its a UV Filter/Hood combo made by Vivitar for the later, Canon SureShot
AF35M -- also using a 48mm thread. I bashed out the glass for two reasons:
One, I wasn't sure of the filter's optical quality and, moreover, ... I didn't
want yet another air to glass surface -- particularly one mounted so far
forward in the shade assembly, that it virtually negated the use of a hood
in the first place ...??I found about 3 of them, as a lot, on eBay and bought
them for this and future Canonets.
Now ... What one needs to know, should you also locate this old Vivitar stock:
The CDS sensor on the Canonet can, indeed, be eclipsed by even a filter ring
I've measured several examples of this. And this hood is no different,
with a factor of -1 stop. So when I shot my first test roll, I shot Fugi
200 at 400. This was using a 675 battery (with an 'O' ring) -- nominally
rated at 1.4 volts ... but every one out of any package actually measures
around 1.37 volts (under no-load conditions) ... well within tolerance,
especially considering the small variations of the leaf shutter, itself.
If one were to use the higher-voltage of, say, a 625A battery, then you could
keep the ASA setting at the rated film ISO and still be within 1/3rd of a
stop, with the hood attached.
Now, the second thing: This rectangular hood (rubber, by the way) is, indeed,
smaller that other similar arrangements I've seen using step-up adapters
and a larger plastic hood of this type. But these eclipse the frame-lines
in the finder rather significantly. My hood, pictured, also eclipses somewhat
at the lower right, but much less so. I simply tilt the camera down a tad
momentarily to see what's behind the small hood intrusion, then recompose.
It all goes more smoothly than it sounds -- and more quickly, as well. And
no, by the way, the hood doesn't vignette the actual frame at any aperture.
One last thing ... Before screwing on the hood, I stretched an 'O' ring around
the front, chromed lens barrel -- then screwed on the hood and aligned it
in its rotational mount. With that, I pulled the 'O' ring forward, snug against
the back of the hood, which then kept the hood from rotating after I aligned
Canon, themselves, once did make a round, back-vented hood for
the camera that reduced viewfinder intrusion (while not eliminating it),
much like Leica. But their current scarcity can command a price in the $40
region ouch. I got my rectangular samples for $5, a pop.
But why use a hood in the first place? In many circumstances and with several
lenses, you dont have to. And, for the most part, your Canon GIII will
snap along merrily without one, naturally. But this particular lens doesnt
take well to light raking across the front lens element, resulting in a potential
reduction of contrast long before theres any discernable
flare, pre se. One could simply use their hand, when applicable.
But I always prefer to cradle and poise cameras with two hands
those of you power plant mutants with three hands, however, youre good
to go ... But, please dont put the camera aside until you find
a hood for it! Shoot. Remember that in most instance, no shading will be
For Film Enthusiasts, Go Ahead. Buy One
So for those wishing to experience the rangefinder, street-shooter
experience, this camera is definitely something to keep your eyes open for.
Again, more than a million of them were produced, so it shouldnt be
difficult to locate a fairly nice sample. As always, dont rush
and wait for your moment. If a case happens to be offered with the camera
(say, on eBay), have a look at it even though youll likely not
use it. Commonly, the Canon cases for this camera deteriorated just by looking
at them. The faux leather split all over its cardboard former. You can safely
expect that. But what you dont want to see is anything that looks like
a white powder on the case the presence of mold and fungus. You may
reason that the powdery black case kept such nasties off the camera.
It more likely has served as a breeding ground for fungus that
has wrapped the camera, making its way into the finder and lens. There can
certainly be exceptions to this, but be wary, as a rule particularly
when the camera isnt actually sitting in front of you, such as it relates
to eBay considerations. You dont want a foggy finder or a lens that
has been etched with fungus (typically behind the front glass element).
With the above in mind, this camera offers much for very little. Alas, often
times after I write about an item any item, I see the price go up
on the open market for a brief period of time following the articles
release. It usually simmers down after, say 2 ~ 3 months. So, again
wait for your moment.